The allure of training technology can often overshadow its value. Today, virtual reality, or VR, is a hot topic in the military training community, but training tools must be developed and selected according to their anticipated use. Context matters, and sometimes the best and most cost-effective training tool may just be a book.
While VR offers many benefits, the Department or Defense could seek to ensure that virtual training content derives from operational needs, integrates with existing processes and curricula, and is validated. Furthermore, this process could be assessed and refined continuously because although we cannot predict the future of technology, we can be confident that what we need and what we want will change.
The United States military has always derived great benefit from novel technological advances, and today is no exception. Rapid acquisition and innovation are focal points for the DoD. This focus extends to training as well, where emerging technologies can present many opportunities. But too often the tie from various capabilities to actual training objectives can be tenuous at best.
Within the training arena, there is now considerable focus on virtual reality and augmented reality. VR involves a user being completely immersed in a virtual environment, and AR involves overlaying virtual entities on real items. The Army, for example, is developing the Integrated Visual Augmentation System that will allow soldiers to see what combat vehicles see, have 3D terrain maps projected onto their real field of view and enable other capabilities for increased situational awareness.
In addition, most of the services are developing aspects of live, virtual and constructive, or LVC, capabilities that can, for example, allow pilots in real jets (live) to train with pilots in flight simulators (virtual) in different locations, all interacting with computer-based (constructive) representations of adversary jets.
Furthermore, the hype surrounding virtual capabilities has recently increased as a result of discussions of the metaverse, a persistent virtual environment whereby disparate users can revisit a virtual location and even own various virtual entities in that environment. In fact, recently, the Space Force filed a trademark application for “Spaceverse.”
These capabilities can offer significant value like increased training repetitions for relatively low cost, opportunities to practice risky activities safely, or connecting multiple participants in distributed training events across services, domains and allied forces. Nonetheless, to reap the benefits of technology while remaining cost effective, one must consider the context. With the current hype surrounding VR, there could be a risk of acquisition efforts chasing the allure of technology rather than the practical value. There can be a tendency for industry to push the technology rather than having end users pull the technology based on actual needs. However, there are methods for mitigating this risk.
The first step in avoiding the chase of new technology just for technology’s sake could be to clearly define what the new technology can offer — and common definitions and vernacular could be key. While this may seem obvious, the definitions of terms like LVC, metaverse or artificial intelligence are not always widely accepted in the U.S. government, much less the broader public. Furthermore, it may be necessary to identify, characterize and broadly communicate what practical capabilities a new technology can offer to various operations.
Although VR and its variants are hot topics in the training community, the appropriate training tool depends on the underlying training objectives. Thus, the second step could be considering the mission and operations that one is training for, clearly parsing what the new technology may be needed for. Missions could be decomposed into tasks and skills, which can then map to the most appropriate technology. For example, practicing dynamic flight maneuvers may require an expensive, full-motion simulator or even live flight, but basic preflight checks may require much lower fidelity.
In addition to ensuring virtual content derives from user needs, it may also be important to consider existing training processes and curricula during technology development. Especially in the case of new capabilities, the development process could include considering where new tools will fit in existing training processes. Technology needs for initial qualification training, for example, are different from those for advanced training or continuous training. Deploying new capabilities within a training process (e.g., a course or sequence of courses) and within an organization may deserve dedicated analysis.
Finally, once new training technology is deployed, validation could be critical. How do you know it really works? Efficacy and training transfer (the transfer of learned tasks or skills to on-the-job operations) could be tested experimentally, and this could require continuous data acquisition during training and during operations.
The steps laid out here should not be completed sporadically; one should not just take a snapshot of training conditions and technology. Rather, this process could be assessed and refined continuously. Thus, in addition to focusing on acquiring technology that helps retain a competitive advantage, the DoD could also focus on codifying processes that align technology with user needs and that adapt as technology, military operations and needs change. Considering context when planning the development and use of training technology could be crucial.
Tim Marler is a senior research engineer at the think tank Rand and a professor at its graduate school.